Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Water in Mexico

The picture shows a light-colored tinaco in Merida.

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. He has led survival skills classes since 1974. He can be reached at or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

I’ve heard it so long that it sounds like some religious mantra:  “Don’t drink the water in Mexico.” 

The meaning is that a visitor to Mexico should not drink the water untreated.  And why is that?  One explanation that I used to hear back in the 1970s when I first visited Mexico was that, while every place has its own bacteria and organisms in their water, one will get used to the organisms in their water after a while.  And supposedly, this also meant that native Mexicans could drink their municipal tap from the water without concern. When I went to language school in Mexico, I always boiled my water or added water purification tablet to the tap water, or purchased bottled water.  Back then, I never thought about asking native Mexicans if they drank their water out of the tap.

More recently, having visited the Yucatan region several times, I asked some of the natives about this.  These days bottled water is everywhere, and most of the people whose homes I stayed in  purchased all their water and did not drink from the tap. When I asked whether or not they’d get sick by drinking water out of their tap without purifying it, they shrugged and said they didn’t know. They buy their water.

Finally,  I met someone who seemed to know a thing about the Mexican water situation.  I asked Julia, who was an American who married a Mexican man and now calls the Yucatan region her home where she and her husband run a farm.

“Do you drink from the tap directly?” I asked Julia.

“No, though I’m not afraid to,” she responded. “If I’m out in the fields and I’m thirsty, I will drink from the hose and I don’t get sick.  But usually, we buy purified and filtered water and they deliver it to our home.”

Julia went on to explain that the tap water is used directly for washing, brushing teeth, irrigation, etc.

“When people say not to drink the water in Merida (Yucatan), I don’t believe the reason is that the water has bad bacteria.  I believe it’s because the water here is very high in minerals and calcium, etc. And it’s those minerals that might cause sickness if you’re not used to it,” explained Julia.

I asked Julia about the people living in all the small villages where they could not afford to buy water. “I don’t know what they do,” responded Julia.

“However,” added Julia, “I’ve been told that in 20 years or so, you won’t be able to drink the water in the Yucatan region because it will be so polluted.”  Julia pointed out that all the water in Yucatan comes from underground, and that the soil is very porous.  She adds that everyone uses septic systems in Yucatan, and there is no sewer system (like in most parts of the U.S.) where the waste water is treated before it is discharged into the soil or water.  Although the local politicians all talk about installing a sewer system after each flood, Julia doesn’t think that will ever happen because of the immensity of such a project.

“Because the soil is so porous, when chemicals are used, they go directly into the ground water,” she says.

“So, because there is no sewer system, there is flooding after every major storm, and everyone blames the mayor and they elect a new mayor who makes new promises, and then it rains again and floods again because nothing was done.”

I concluded that it was a good thing for me to buy my water, or purify it, whenever I travel.  And it’s not wise to judge the water of such as large country as Mexico with one yardstick because the “water situation” of any country is vastly more complex than what I’ve presented here.  Unfortunately, we should be suspect of most tap water and most open sources of water, wherever we are.

I asked Julia about the black tanks on nearly everyone’s roof in most parts of Mexico. “Those are called tinacos,” Julia told me, which my dictionary told me simply means “water tank.”

In the United States, people often let their water run a bit so it starts to cool off.  However, due to the lack of pressurized water in Mexico, most homes and buildings have large water tanks – tinacos – on their roofs. These then deliver the water by gravity as needed.  But since these are traditionally black, the coolest water comes out first and then the water gets hotter as you let the tap run because the water was heated by the sun.  Now you can find tinacos white or light-colored so that the water is not heated so much by the sun.

[Did  you have any comments or questions about this story? I'd love to hear from you!]

1 comment:

Verna Griffin said...

When you're abroad, or even in an unfamiliar place, you'd rather be safe than sorry. Whether it be buying bottled water or purifying it yourself, either of them is a good bet. You don't want to be sick in a place you barely know. Taking this tip to heart helps you and your companions immensely. Have a safe trip!

Verna Griffin @ Axeon Water Technologies